5 Alternative Solo RPGs
I was fascinated to read Paul Bimler's article on Solo D&D.
I also enjoy solo gaming. As people say, there are as many ways to play D&D as there are DMs. With solo play there are as many ways to solo play as there are players.
My style of solo roleplay is somewhat different to Paul's. There are two significant differences. The first is Paul's flipmat and markers. I am much more in the ‘Theatre of the Mind’ school and do not use any physical play aids, but more about that later. The other big difference is the rule system. I prefer to utilise a much lighter rule system for my solo play. The primary reason is all about continuity. Once you start a solo adventure, if you find yourself breaking off from your narratives to check rules, roll dice and check tables, I find it makes it harder keep the story flowing.
Rules light games often have just one or two mechanics that are employed in every situation. Alongside simple mechanics you often get extremely simple characters. This means that you could in theory keep your character on a Post-it note and run your game from memory.
If you strip out the flipmat, miniatures, or tokens that leaves only the solo rules and the journal.
Paul has his The Solo Adventurer’s Toolbox. The Toolbox is one example of a “Solo Engine”. All the tables that make up the decision making rules in solo play are generally referred to as a Solo Engine, GM Emulator, or a GME as they drive your stories. When you would normally ask a question of your GM you instead ask the Solo Engine and roll for an answer. Once you have an answer you have to apply gut instinct, common sense and imagination to make that answer fit the game you are playing, the situation your character is in and the sort of adventure you want to have.
I have here five combinations of solo engines and games give you an alternative to Mythic GME and D&D.
1) Solo Engine for 7th Sea Role Playing Game
These rules were made specifically for the 7th Sea game. Where D&D can turn into a battle of hit point attrition, 7th Sea is a much more narrative style of game. You don't have to beat your way through hordes of kobolds rolling ‘to hit’ and the dealing damage to each one. 7th Sea deals with whole groups of these ‘minions’ as single entities which reduces your record keeping and speeds up play.
The solo rules have a more sophisticated set of question tools that go beyond the no, maybe, and yes that Paul talked about in his article. The basic principle is the same but you lose the maybe answer and in its place you get and… and but… modifiers.
The and… modifier means that your answer was what you expected and even more. To take Paul's example of ‘can you find an inn’, a Yes and… would be the first thing that you think of that would be even better than just finding an inn. My first reaction was ‘Yes you find an inn and the landlord is a retired adventurer friend of yours.’
The but… modifier adds a complicating factor or makes things not as good, yes but…, or as bad, no but…, to the standard answer. ‘Do you find an inn?’ Yes but… there is a mob gathering outside complete with torches pitchforks.
With the and, but, yes, and no there are six possible answers from the same simple ‘roll for an answer’ mechanic.
In addition to the yes/no roll, these rules give you a complex question tool. If you are watching a villain across a tavern and you try to overhear their conversion a yes/no answer is not going to help you. The complex question tool gives you a two word pairing that is to be used as the distilled essence of the conversation, in this case. The complex question tool is used for conversations, the subjects of books, or anything that conveys meaning.
Finally, these rules use dice to prompt NPC reactions and, should a fight start, their tactics.
That sounds a lot of work but the whole thing is about ten pages with full examples.
7th Sea is one of the most popular narrative games of recent years and you can run an entire campaign with this simple booklet and some note paper for your journal.
2) 3Deep Episodic Role Playing
This game uses a simple 2d6 mechanic for just about everything from stats to skills to driving cars and flying X-wing fighters. It was also written with a solo engine built into the game from the start.
3Deep's solo engine uses something called story arcs. You start with at least one story arc or thread that is part of your character’s background. As you ask questions the answers can make achieving your goals harder or easier and manipulate NPCs.
3Deep has a more structured journal and asks you to keep track of scenes, NPCs and unfinished plotlines as these often reappear in your character’s adventures making everything interconnected.
The game is genre neutral, and therefore equally at home with swashbuckling, special forces or stormtroopers.
3) Devil's Staircase Wild West Roleplaying
This game is so new it is not even released yet. You can download the playtest documents, a quickstart PDF, and a set of solo rules all for free from DriveThruRPG. Devil's Staircase is the underlying game system and is driven by a poker style playing card mechanic rather than dice. The accompanying solo engine has the yes/no/and/but and complex question tools as well as NPC reactions but this time they are driven by dealing cards rather than rolling d100s, d20s or d6s.
Of all the games here this is about the lightest in terms of rules and you really can have a character on a sticky note with space to spare.
Although the Wild West is not everyone's favourite genre, it is easily accessible for solo play as it doesn't take a huge leap of imagination to picture the setting and NPCs. There are other Devil games in the pipeline.
By solo playing this game you can help with its play testing and help bring the game to market.
4) Grim & Perilous Solo Rules
These rules share a lot of their DNA with the 7th Sea rules above. They were derived from a set of rules called the One Page Solo Engine by Karl Hendricks. This version has been written to work seamlessly with Zweihänder.
You would not normally think of Zweihänder as rules light but there is an eight page rules summary to use as a reference in place of the main book if you are familiar with your character and setting. The game also uses a common mechanic for all skill tests and challenges so running the game without the book in front of you is relatively easy.
The Grim & Perilous Solo Rules are a stripped down version in comparison to the 7th Sea rules as the NPCs reactions have been cut back. Zweihänder has detailed rules for social interaction so the solo rules do not really need a ‘roll d100’ to see how the NPC reacts. What you do get on the other hand is an actual play written up where you can see how a complex plot evolves from just a few interactions with the solo rules.
5) Demonic Solo Rules
Shadow of the Demon Lord is not really a rules light game but the actual play is really easy to grasp. I have included it in this round up because it is, I believe, one of the only solo engines where the state of the character is taken into account by the oracle. Most oracles or solo engines remain unchanged by the status of the character. They change the distribution of results based upon the probability of the question being true or false, yes or no. This solo engine interacts with the character in a subtly different way. The core method is the same but Shadow of the Demon Lord has a mechanic called Fortune that can modify all the rolls made by a character until it is ‘spent’. In this solo engine when a character has Fortune it is used to nudge the result in the characters favour. It is a subtle difference but over the duration of a campaign a 5% difference in your favour has real consequences.
The big gain when using a solo engine that is build specifically to work with the game you are playing is that you don’t have to learn a new game mechanic. The solo rules should sit naturally alongside the existing game rules.
On the other hand, the big gain in using a rule light game is that you don’t have to interrupt your game to check the rules or consult endless tables. Rules light games often put more on the GM to interpret but where you are both GM and player and the entire world is being created by you on demand GM interpretation is intrinsic to solo play.
All of the games here are available as PDFs. Light rules, digital rulebooks and simple solo rules mean you can solo play anytime and anywhere from your commute to work to while waiting for a plane. The most expensive of the solo rules featured here is $7.99, the rest are one or two dollars, and Devil’s Staircase is completely free. If you have not tried solo play it is not a big investment to give it a go. If you have bought one of these games but not been able to play it then I would say give it a go and get those unplayed games off the shelf and give them a go.
Peter Rudin-Burgess is a gamer, game designer, and blogger. When not writing his own games he creates supplements for other peoples to sell on DriveThruRPG. His current obsessions are Shadow of the Demon Lord, 7th Sea 2nd Edition, and Zweihander.
Header image is in the public domain
As an advocate of solo D&D, one of the most frequent questions I hear is “how do I get started?”
Such a question, when posed in a setting such as a D&D Facebook group, can elicit a wide range of responses.
“You can’t play D&D solo. It’s a social game…”
“I think there were some solo modules that came out with first edition...”
“You mean video games, right?”
...which can all be a bit discouraging for someone eager to get into a bit of solo play.
Despite what you may have heard, solo play has been part of D&D since the very beginning. The first edition Player’s Handbook was released with a solo adventure included to teach the basic rules. This was my introduction to the game, and being my first experience of D&D, is probably why I spend a big chunk of my time creating solo resources for players. Also, TSR created many solo modules for use with the first and second editions of the game, in particular the XSOLO series. Some of you may even be familiar with gamebook such as Fighting Fantasy and Lone Wolf, and if you grew up in the 80s (especially in the UK or New Zealand or Australia) and were into D&D, chances are you were into those gamebooks as well. In the US, “Choose Your Own Adventure” books were a big hit, but I never got into these as they never called for dice rolls or combat scenarios.
This is not to detract from the social aspect of the game in any way. In fact, as you will see, it adds to and supports the social aspect. This is for those times in between games, or when you can’t find a group to play with.
There are a number of reasons why someone might want to play solo D&D, but probably the main one is that they can’t find a game. With that in mind, I have compiled a list of five things that will get you started playing D&D solo. And by solo, I mean without a Dungeon Master.
1) Get A Flipmat And Minis
To really make your solo play tangible, tabletop is the best way to go. And the best way to do that is to get yourself a flipmat and some minis. Paizo put out a product called “Pathfinder Flip Mat: Basic Terrain Multi Pack” which is a set of two, double-sided flipmats that portray wilderness, dungeon, ocean and urban backgrounds for you to draw on with dry erase markers.
Add miniatures to this, and you’re all set. Of course, Wizards of the Coast has a huge range of minis for every class, which you can find online or at your local game store. My method is to buy the mini, then create the character that fits with it.
You can start tabletop adventuring even cheaper than this. Go and buy a bunch of one inch washers from your local hardware store, then get some sticky paper and a one inch holepunch. Find a cool image for your PC, then print it onto sticky paper, punch it out with the holepunch (or adhere it to the washer and cut around the edge with scissors) and voila! Flat, circular tokens for your gameboard. You can do the same with monsters also.
If you are really strapped for cash, you could use coins or even dice to represent PCs and monsters. And you can find all sorts of great maps on Dungeon Master’s Guild (there’s a lot of free maps packs) and sites like dundjinni.com. With a little creativity, you can have a cost-effective tabletop setup in no time.
2) Question / Answer Mechanic
All right, you’re all set up and ready to get started with your solo tabletop campaign. What now?
You are going to need some tools to effectively replace the Dungeon Master. And the most important of these is a question/answer mechanic.
Simply put, this is a way of getting answers to questions using dice rolls as you journey through the adventure. Solo adventuring is pointless unless we can create the adventure as we move through it, so that the twists and turns are revealed as we encounter them. The most well-known version of the question/answer mechanic is the Mythic GM Emulator, which uses D100 rolls to answer yes/no questions framed by the player. There are likelihood modifiers (adjusted according to the current situation) and also a Chaos Factor which goes up or down according to events within your game. Also, every time you roll a double (11, 22, 33, 44) you get a random event, the nature of which can be determined by rolling on another table (or by any table you might choose to introduce). Mythic GM Emulator is available on Drivethrurpg here).
In my product, The Solo Adventurer’s Toolbox (available on Dungeon Master’s Guild here), I created my own version of the question / answer mechanic which uses d20 rolls to get yes/no answers, with a likelihood modifier. This is basically a stripped-down version of the Mythic Mechanic.
Let me give you an example of a question / answer mechanic in action.
Lorna and Dumon, a druid and a ranger, enter the town of Wadale after several days on the road. Casting her eye about, Lorna looks for an inn.
At this point, the solo player poses the question: Is Lorna able to find an inn? (All questions need to be framed so they can be answered with either “yes” or “no”).
The town is a reasonable size, so it’s likely that there is an inn here. Using my own Q/A mechanic, the player can use the modifier +2 (Likely), and then make a d20 roll. The results could be as follows:
In this case, the result is an 11, but when we add the “Likely” modifier of +2, it pushes the result up to 13, which is a “Yes”. (If “maybe” is the result, then perhaps an investigation check is required). From this, we know that Lorna is able to find an inn. Now we can move to another table which tells us the nature of the inn, the name of the inn, what NPCs are there, and other details. Combining those elements with question / answer rolls, we can move through the adventure with ease.
3) Story Elements And Setting
It goes without saying that you will need a world for your adventurers to travel in. There is something to be said for using an established setting. All the worldbuilding has already been done for you, so when you reach Neverwinter in the Forgotten Realms (for example) all you need to do is grab your copy of the Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting (or type “Neverwinter” into Google) and you will instantly see what sort of things your PC might be dealing with.
But then, there is homebrew as well. The beauty of soloing with homebrew is that you get to flesh out your world as you travel through it!
By “Story Elements” I am referring to a way of answering specific questions, or providing detailed answers that the question / answer mechanic is incapable of furnishing. In the Mythic system, there are the Event Meaning Tables, which provide 100 subjects and 100 actions. Using two d100 rolls, we can create infinite combinations such as Travel / A Burden, Malice/Magic, Inspect/Messages, Disrupt/Leadership and many, many others.
In The Solo Adventurer’s toolbox, I have a chapter called Story Element Interaction Tables which provides a list of basic situations according to terrain, accompanied by a list of 499 verbs which the player can roll on until a situation presents itself.
4) Tables. Lots Of Tables
In order to generate a wide variety of encounters, situations, locations, NPCs and all the other things that make up a campaign for your character, you will need a large selection of tables and random generators to help you generate these things. Let me introduce you to a few excellent tools that will help you create all the variables you need for your campaign.
DONJON RPG TOOLS: If you are not already familiar with this site, you need to get to know this one. This site is a go-to for DMs and contains generative tools for creating NPCs, taverns, merchants, monster encounters, loot, towns, dungeons… everything you need for a full campaign. Pair these resources with a question / answer mechanic, and you are underway. Check out the Donjon page here.
With a goal of creating a one-stop shop for soloing, I created a similar spread of tables for The Solo Adventurer’s Toolbox. But I also encourage players to use any tools that come to hand.
D100 TABLES: Here is another crazy resource that I found on Reddit one day. This is a community created selection of tables that covers just about everything you could think of, and more. Even if you’re not a solo player, this is well worth a look. Check out this insane collection of tables here.
And last, but by no means least, there is the concept of journaling, which is arguably the most crucial component of solo adventuring.
Simply put, journaling is the act of taking notes as you adventure, documenting your characters’ actions, discoveries, motivations, NPC interactions and everything else that occurs within the course of your campaign. There is no need to get overly detailed with your journaling. For example, you don’t want to be interrupting every stage of your quest to note: “Draxar moves down the corridor, then comes to a junction. He continues west, then comes to a door. It is locked. Taking out his thieves’ tools... “ etc. You don’t require that level of narration. Instead, you can let your PC complete stages of the quest, then summarise those stages in your journal.
What journaling does is make your adventuring concrete, and also provides you with a record of clues, quest notes, important NPCs and other things. It also goes a long way towards replicating DM narration. By entering the notes of the quest as you venture through it, you are effectively becoming a sort of pseudo-narrator yourself, telling the stories of your characters as they venture through your world. If you are venturing in your homebrew world, then these notes can form part of your worldbuilding.
And there is an added bonus to all this: once you are finished with your quest, you can convert the adventure concept for a full party. So your solo adventuring accomplishes two aims at once!
So, to summarise, solo D&D is definitely achievable, but we need to assemble a few tools to streamline the experience and make it easy and enjoyable. The five points listed above will be enough to get you started down the path of solo adventuring, and should provide you with a framework to create some meaningful and immersive quests.
With a view to facilitating freeform solo adventuring, I created a product entitled The Solo Adventurer’s Toolbox. It contains all the things listed above (apart from flipmat and minis) and much more, comprising a complete system for freeform solo adventuring within any world. However, following the points listed above should be enough to get you started.
Also, come and find us on Facebook: we have a group dedicated to solo adventuring named Dungeons & Dragons Solo Adventures. It’s a great community where you will find many tips and resources all related to solo adventuring.
Paul Bimler is a writer of solo adventures for D&D and releases under the small label 5e Solo Gamebooks. He also teaches music production and lives in the city of Christchurch in New Zealand. So far Paul has five gamebooks and a number of other products released on Dungeon Master's Guild. He also runs a Facebook page named D&D Solo Adventures.
Picture Reference: https://www.dmsguild.com/product/235268/DD-Solo-Adventure-Tables-Of-Doom--5E-Solo-Adventuring
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